Identical twins have been a source of endless fascination for millennia. Two people who seem to share a mind, with the exact same DNA, can occupy different bodies. Many twins have such an intimate bond that they seem to read other’s thoughts and communicate in a special language. Their bond is much stronger than other siblings, having spent nine months together before birth. As identical twins age, they tend to have similar IQs, heights, and tastes. However, they may develop different skin conditions and allergies as a response to variable environmental factors. In rare cases, identical twins have widely disparate personalities. The first twin studies, conducted by Sir Francis Galton in the 19th century, tried to find an answer to the “nature-nuture” debate (Galton advocated for the “nature” side). After horrific experiments by Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele on twins during the Second World War, ethical concerns were raised about twin studies. Today in America, twins are not separated for the purpose of experimentation, and the subjects of medical studies must be given informed consent by law.
In Identical Strangers, Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein recount how they found each other in their 30s, after being wrested from each other’s lives before their first birthday. (Not to be confused with the new documentary Three Identical Strangers, which concerns triplets who went through a similar harrowing experience.) Curiosity about their birth mother motivated them to contact the adoption agency, Louise Wise Services, at different times. After Elyse found out that she was a twin, an employee of the agency got in touch with Paula to arrange a meeting. Following an intense introduction, they found that they are both writers who went to film school, have suffered from depression, and have an adopted older brother. The new relationship has the serendipity of a romance, though Elyse comes from a less affluent, more troubled, family in Oklahoma—her adoptive mother died when she was six. She is single while Paula is married with a child. They pledge to find the truth of their early upbringing and get to know each other’s adoptive families.
The Louise Wise Services, named after the wife of Reform Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, was an esteemed Jewish adoption agency in New York. Dr. Viola Bernard, a well-respected psychiatrist, had the weird notion that twins and triplets separated at birth would become psychologically healthier than as multiple offspring kept together. She convinced the administration of Louise Wise, which was run by New York’s Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, to put her idea into practice. Children were forcibly taken from shared cribs to be with different adoptive families. Neither the children nor the adoptive parents would be told of their sibling(s). A Freudian psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Neubauer, would supervise yearly psychological testing of the twins or triplets in their separate households. Research assistants told the families that their participation was part of a normal child development study instead of a twin study. In 1980, the media coverage of the story of the triplets separated at birth put an end to Dr. Neubauer’s research. The twins study was now considered too controversial. The work on the influence of environmental factors on people with the same genes was never published. Instead, Neubauer’s papers were donated to Yale University, and are not available to researchers until 2066, after most of the study’s unwitting participants will have passed away.
Elyse and Paula were able to find their birth record after doing a thorough vital records search for all twins born on October 9, 1968 in New York City (adoptees have two birth certificates—one with their given name, the other with their adopted name). Through their birth record, they were able to find out the name of their mother, Leda Witt, a bright woman with psychiatric problems who died in her late thirties. The twins were raised by an Irish nanny (as Jean and Marian) for the first six months of their lives. They had an uncomfortable interview with the elderly Dr. Neubauer, who does not express any remorse about the experiment, and they were able to study Dr. Viola Bernard’s papers at Columbia. By the end of this fascinating dual memoir, Elyse and Paula achieve a measure of equanimity about their tragic background.